At first Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children seems a satiric novel about three old friends--Julius, Marina, and Daniella- from Ivy League college who at thirty strive for scintilating New York intellectual careers but deal with various career and romantic fiascos. Julius is prone to comparing his current feelings to to either Tolstoy's great characters Pierre and Natasha War and Peace. When he namedrops War and Peace to his close friend Marina, daughter of a famous journalist, she always repeats that she's never read Tolstoy's book. Julius has read War and Peace but reduces it to cheap romance novel, never thinking about how Tolstoy is talking about the horrors of war as well as romances of peace. The problem with name dropping Tolstoy throughout this novel is the reader makes the inevitable comparison between Messud and Tolstoy.
If Messud would have cut the last 60 pp, she could have have a light hearted satire with Marina's cousin Bootie Tubbs, a 19-year old college drop out who like his older cousin and her two friends comes to New York to fashion his life. For a while the novel picks up speed in its middle with adulteries and romantic betrayals about to be revealed.
After about 367 pps of this, the novel veers unexpectedly from light hearted satire to 9/11--this plot twist really sinks it. If only Messud had not put in 9/11 and changed her title. The novel lacked a good editor, but New York publishing houses are getting notorious for their lack of editing these days. A good editor could have out 9/11 and the last 50 or so pages. The novel could have a climax when all betrayals--romatic and literary--are revealed, and the 30-year old and 19-year old characters are forced to deal with reality of love and work rather than their fantasies. That novel might have worked.
But instead we get 9/11 where the 19-year old Bootie has the Big Thoughts about 9/11, and they are banal indeed. He decides to stop worshipping his famous writer uncle whom he calls "the emperor of this place of pretense ..." Bootie like the adolescent of Catcher in the Rye has decided his uncle is not a hero but a phony. He decides that with all the choas of 9/11 he could just disappear from the awful realities of his life--losing his hero --and he does. So he disappears to his non-phony new life. The novel turns into a silly replay of Catcher in the Rye where the Bootie's mother decides he's dead and buries him but the reader knows he's not. The reader doesn't have to mourn any 9/11 victims or even think about 9/11.
Tolstoy's War and Peace, in contrast, is a meditation on war by a man who had been a soldier and knew war. The idiocies of the French invasion as well as the stupidity of many Russian officers in their country's defense come off brilliantly. Tolstoy had plenty of criticisms to make of the conduct of the war. The Russian author also captures the horror of war in Prince Andre's death and Natasha's family fleeing Moscow or Pierre wandering dazed while the French soldiers burn Moscow.
Messud's characters like many characters in contemporary U.S. fiction have no connection with the larger political/economic world. That's particularly strange because Marina's writer father is supposed to be a famous liberal journalist, but Messud makes him into a stick figure who spouts about honesty but then cheats on his wife. None of the adult characters seems to ponder what's behind 9/11. The"emperor" of the title turns out not to be any political empire but a adolescent's word for a phony adult. Making an shallow adolescent have the Big Insight on 9/11 makes this novel fit mainly for teenagers.
Causes Julia Stein Supports
Doctors Without Borders